Postseason Postmortem: The Final

Credit: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The coroner is in for his final day on the job. Let us sift through the aftermath of the ferocious final battle.

The skinny: The champion has retained their title. After five games, the Tampa Bay Lightning defeated the Montreal Canadiens and shared their moment in the sun with the delighted fans. It was a tale of two teams: one was the defending champion who had to overcome the hungry young foes in their division, the other the classic underdog story that toppled heavy favorites. Ultimately, however, this rendition of the story would see Goliath defeat David, as the Lightning repeat for the first time since the Penguins in 2016-17.

Now, as it pertains to time and with other projects on the way, I decided that, for the Lightning and Canadiens postmortems, to combine the two to explain not only how this series went, but how the Lightning were able to remain on top of the food chain in the NHL. The crystal ball section will go into what both teams do next, and that will serve as a wrap-up for this series. Thank you so much for all who stuck with it. Now, where were we? Oh yeah, the postmortem…

Early leads: If there was one thing you could trust the Lightning and Canadiens to do, it was get out to an early lead and stifle the opposition from getting back into the game. For example, in the series where Montreal upset the Vegas Golden Knights, Montreal scored first in four of the six games, with their average time per game with the lead being double that of Vegas. Seems like a stark difference, right? It was nothing compared to the dominance that Tampa Bay showed, scoring first in all four of its wins this series and leading for an average of 32:28 per game. The Canadiens, meanwhile, only held the lead for an average of 5:20 per game. That’s pure domination of a team.

Nikita Kucherov: It felt strange calling a bona fide star in the league an X-factor coming into the postseason, but that was exactly the situation that Nikita Kucherov found himself in. An offensive dynamo who played a key part in Tampa Bay’s cup run last season, he ended up needing hip surgery that would keep him on the shelf for the entire regular season. When he came back for the postseason, it was unclear whether he would be one hundred percent. He didn’t do too bad…he just happened to lead the Lightning with 32 points in the postseason. It’s the second straight postseason that Kucherov has scored 30+ points (the other two guys to reach that are some guys named Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux.) The fact Kucherov was not only able to produce, but light up the playoffs despite missing the entire season, is a testament to just how good Kucherov is. He’s set to replace Alex Ovechkin as the NHL’s next big Russian superstar…

Andrei Vasilevskiy: …unless his goaltender and compatriot has anything to say about it. This year’s winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy for playoff MVP, Vasilevskiy was dominant throughout the postseason. He was one of two goaltenders to have a GAA under two (for context, the other was Toronto’s Jack Campbell, and we know what happened to the Maple Leafs), but the dominance extends far beyond that. He scored a shutout in every series-clinching game, and he is the first goaltender to get shutouts in two straight Cup-clinching games since Bernie Parent in 1974-75. For further context, the only other goaltender to have five series-clinching shutouts is Chris Osgood; Vasilevskiy managed that total in five straight games. He was also dominant in terms of save percentage as well, as his .937 mark is good to tie for 15th all-time in a single postseason. There is no more debate: Andrei Vasilevskiy is the best goaltender in the world.

The crystal ball: So now on to the obvious question: can Tampa be the first team to three-peat since the New York Islanders won four straight Cups between 1980 and 1983? It’s possible, but they’ll have an uphill climb. The flat cap means that the Lightning are starting a few million dollars over the salary cap, and they’ll have young players like Cal Foote and Cup-winning goal scorer Ross Colton looking for extensions. It’s likely that the Lightning will push the Seattle Kraken to take Spokane native Tyler Johnson, but it will take a decent package to do so (a young NHL-caliber player like Mathieu Joseph should help move things along there). Even then, the Lightning will be pressed right against the cap, so a contract will have to be moved for relief. Whether it’s Ondrej Palat, Ryan McDonagh, Anthony Cirelli, or Alex Killorn that gets moved between now and the start of next season, this summer is shaping up to be one of bloodletting for the Lightning.

As for the Canadiens, they now face the challenge of handling the weight of expectation. Marc Bergevin and Dominique Ducharme have earned some goodwill back with the Montreal fans, but now they’ll be tasked to keep the faith. It’ll start with a relatively interesting offseason. Jesperi Kotkaniemi will be looking for a decent extension as a restricted free agent, and the Canadiens should look into resigning two-way forwards Phillip Danault and Joel Armia. They don’t have to think too much about planning for extensions, as Nick Suzuki and Alexander Romanov will hit restricted free agency as Paul Byron and Ben Chiarot come off the books. There’s also the possibility of trading Jonathan Drouin, who left the team for personal reasons in April and who fans have soured on after watching Mikhail Sergachev (the player Drouin was traded for) win yet another Cup. He’s becoming more well-rounded in his game, but what kind of price can he be expected to fetch in a market that’s dominated with chatter of Jack Eichel and Vladimir Tarasenko?

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Postseason Postmortem: New York Islanders

Credit: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The coroner is in. Let us send off Nassau Coliseum and the Islanders.

The skinny: Even now, it’s still ironic to see the Islanders succeed in the set of circumstances they were thrown into. Losing their best player in John Tavares, being thrown into years of mismanagement, and having no real sustainable stretch of success since their dynasty in the late 1980s was a problem. The Islanders should have hit a rough patch that could have very well seen the team relocate out of Long Island (this video provides a great overview of the team’s struggles.)

Instead, something happened. With dedicated leadership and an emerging young core, the Islanders were able to claw their way back to relevance. Unfortunately, this season’s rendition of the Islanders were met with a similar fate: a potential Cinderella run cast aside by the Lightning juggernaut. So how did it happen this time? Let’s take a closer look…

Offense: In hindsight, it felt like a matter of time before the Islanders offense went on a cold spell. While they had performed admirably in the playoffs up to this point, the regular season indicated a regression was coming. In the regular season, the offense finished with 2.71 goals per game, good for only 21st in the league. Unfortunately, that type of inconsistent offense came to play against the Lightning. After scoring 43 goals in the two series prior, the Islanders only managed 11 goals in the seven games against Tampa Bay. Last season’s postseason hero in Jean-Gabriel Pageau and trade deadline acquisition Kyle Palmieri were both held without a point this series, despite combining for ten goals against Pittsburgh and Boston. An admirable showing, but a series like this proves there’s still work that needs to be done here.

Power play: For all the talk about the Golden Knights’ poor power play in the Stanley Cup Semifinals, the Islanders’ struggles in that area tended to get lost in the shuffle. In seventeen power play attempts, the Islanders only managed to score once, including going scoreless in their last twelve. The most damning instance of the power play’s ineffectiveness? Game 7, where the Lightning won on a shorthanded goal from Yanni Gourde. If the only team generating positive momentum from a power play is the opposing team, that’s going to cause trouble quickly.

Young players: For as great of a coach as Barry Trotz is, I have to question his lineup choices to some degree here, particularly in terms of keeping young players in the press box. Sure, Noah Dobson got plenty of reps and did pretty well for himself, but what about Oliver Wahlstrom? Yes, Wahlstrom was injured in the first-round series against Pittsburgh, but he was taking pregame warmups as early as Game 1 against the Lightning. He was one of only seven Islanders to score double-digit goals during the regular season, but he was still kept off the lineup in favor of “stable veterans” like Leo Komarov and Travis Zajac (the two combined for two goals in 46 total games for the Islanders this season). Even someone like Kieffer Bellows, a talented prospect who did alright despite facing a learning curve this season, didn’t see any playoff action. Looking at what the likes of Cole Caufield and Nick Suzuki did for the Canadiens this postseason, it’s hard not to look back on this decision and wonder if relying on the youth could have made a difference.

The crystal ball: The Islanders have cemented a reputation as a team that’s a tough out in the postseason, but they owe it to themselves and their fans to evolve into a legitimate Cup contender. Fortunately, they have the pieces to manage that. Mathew Barzal has proven more than capable as a top-line center, the lineup is loaded with solid veteran players, and Anders Lee should be healthy after tearing his ACL mid-season. The defense is headlined by shutdown pairing Ryan Pulock and Adam Pelech, with Scott Mayfield, Nick Leddy, and Dobson in supporting roles. Goaltending is manned by the Russian duo of Semyon Varlamov and Ilya Sorokin, the latter of which was stellar in the first round against Pittsburgh.

Unfortunately, the cap could be an issue. The Islanders have only $5.79 million in cap space to work with, and they’ll need more for extensions of Anthony Beauvillier, Pelech, and Sorokin. Pulock and Dobson will also be on expiring contracts next season, and money will need to be cleared for Barzal’s extension in two years. Moving Andrew Ladd back onto LTIR should free up some money, but it’s unclear if that would be enough. They might have to explore buyouts of the likes of Komarov or Cal Clutterbuck, or trades on Jordan Eberle and Josh Bailey in the future. They’ve gotten this far already; now it’s time to see what direction they take.

Postseason Postmortem: Vegas Golden Knights

Credit: Paul Chaisson/The Canadian Press

The coroner is in…let’s just get this over with.

The skinny: If there was ever an NHL team that could be described as having a whirlwind existence, the Golden Knights are that team. After a phenomenal inaugural season that saw them demolish several expansion team records and make a spirited run to the Stanley Cup final, the weight of expectation has hung largely on the Knights ever since. Their reaction has been, frankly, a mixed bag of tricks. The second season saw a few key players take a step back, ending with a crushing first-round exit that saw the Knights blow a 3-1 series lead to the San Jose Sharks. Last season, despite a midseason coaching change that brought in Peter DeBoer from that same Sharks team, the Knights rolled to the end of the postseason and won the round robin in the playoff bubble to secure the top seed in the Western Conference. Unfortunately, their run would come to an end at the hands of the Dallas Stars.

This year felt like more of the same. They struggled against Minnesota, but managed to overcome the adversity and pull out the Game 7 victory. They then rolled through the Colorado Avalanche in surprising fashion, winning four straight after dropping the first two in Denver. A series against Montreal was supposed to be a strong chance to visit their second Cup Final in four years. Instead, the Knights fell in a shocking upset for the second straight year. How did it happen this time? Well, history does tend to repeat itself…

Offense: Last season, Vegas went out of the playoffs due to an offense that shut down at the worst possible time and couldn’t get anything going. This year, unfortunately, provided more of the same. They only managed two goals and 13 points from their top-six forwards. For context, that goal output was doubled by the Canadiens’ Cole Caufield and outproduced by the line of Caufield, Tyler Toffoli, and Nick Suzuki (seller’s remorse much?) Captain Mark Stone was held without a point the entire series. The worst performance, however, came on the power play, where the Knights went scoreless in 15 attempts. After two straight postseasons marred by offensive struggles, it’s fair to wonder if it’s time for Vegas to make some changes about how they manage the puck on the opposing end of the ice.

Marc-Andre Fleury: It’s hard to speak ill of Fleury for his performance. The Vezina Trophy winner for the first time in his career, Fleury was a key piece to the deep run the Knights went on this postseason. Unfortunately, Montreal didn’t make life easy for the Flower, finishing the series with a middling .904 save percentage. Most notable in all of this was Game 3, when Fleury made a rare mistake that saw the Canadiens tie the game late and essentially cost Vegas the game. It resulted in the return of the goalie rotation (to be fair, Robin Lehner bounced back nicely in relief) and, when Fleury returned to the ice in Game 5, the mojo that’s defined Fleury’s time in Vegas just wasn’t there. A storybook season brought to an unfortunate end.

Coaching: In the sense that the Knights are a roller coaster kind of team, Peter DeBoer is a roller coaster kind of coach. He’ll have stretches of dominant play throughout the regular season and postseason, but it can be balanced out by, in this instance, being outcoached by an interim to the interim head coach. Sure, part of the Knights’ struggles can be attested to Carey Price channeling the ghost of Ken Dryden past, but the offense for Vegas felt way too predictable far too often. The Canadiens, with their savvy veteran talent and smart coaching, were able to implement a system that frustrated the Knights and left them unable to do anything. It was the same trap that DeBoer caught Colorado’s Jared Bednar in the previous round, and it was also the same trap that he got caught in last postseason against Dallas. DeBoer deserves at least one more go, but he needs to prove that he can make good on these deep playoff runs.

The crystal ball: Remember the “Cup in six” decree handed out by owner Bill Foley when the team was announced? In an ironic twist of fate, Foley might just have been referring to the team’s first Cup window. It puts Vegas at two more years before divisional foes like Los Angeles and Anaheim can start providing threats to their likely divisional supremacy, so they’ll have to act fast to make good on this window. The good news is the roster doesn’t have many holes (outside of the unrestricted free agency of Alec Martinez), so they don’t have to break the bank too badly. Their exemption from the Seattle Expansion Draft also puts them in position to make a move or two, giving them leverage over teams fearful of losing a valuable piece for nothing. It may require an expiring contract or two being moved out for cap purposes (Brayden McNabb and Ryan Reaves stand out as two options), but those will likely be far cries from the last two summers of bloodletting.

The only question now is this: what happens to the goaltending rotation of Fleury and Lehner? Both played incredibly well last season and meshed very well together, but the simple fact is that Vegas has $12 million invested in two players that sees only one play every game. The gamble paid off and it did make sense in order for both to handle the rigors of a condensed schedule, but what happens now with the Knights at a crossroads in their young existence? The asking price for Fleury will likely be much better than it was a season ago, but will fans potentially turn on the team for trading the face of the franchise after a career year? Meanwhile, if the team trades Lehner just one season into a five-year contract extension, what does that say to potential free agents about Vegas’s management? They could also choose to keep both, but doing so would immediately strike Vegas out of many of the top free agents in this class. It’ll be a delicate balancing act this season but, if Vegas can be trusted with one thing, it’s that they know how to put on a show.

Postseason Postmortem: Colorado Avalanche

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The coroner is in. Let us run the autopsy on the regular season champion.

The skinny: What. Just. Happened? It was the only words that Avalanche fans could likely muster as their team’s Stanley Cup hopes fell by the wayside against Vegas. They were a team that everybody (myself included) thought had a legitimate chance at the Stanley Cup this season. The regular season and first round only fueled the fire, seeing the Avalanche win the President’s Trophy for the most points in the regular season and sweep the St. Louis Blues. The fantasy matchup against the Golden Knights was supposed to be their magnum opus; a battle against a worthy opponent that would cement them as heavy Cup favorites.

It started that way at the beginning. The Avalanche dominated the Golden Knights 7-1 in Game 1 before stealing Game 2 in overtime. They were looking to cruise past Vegas and lock up another quick playoff win. Not only did that not happen, but the Avalanche did nothing to counteract Vegas adjusting to their gameplan. Four straight losses later, and the Avalanche saw another promising season come to a premature end. So how did things turn out like this? Let’s look at the details…

The MacKinnon line: Nowhere could you see the momentum shift in this series than examining Colorado’s top line’s production. They were stellar in the outlier Game 1, combining for five goals and eight points in the blowout. In the remaining five games, they would score three more goals and nine points between them. Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog would be shut out for the rest of the series and, while Mikko Rantanen did score the game-winner in Game 2, he had multiple opportunities to put games out of reach. Past those three players, the only other skater to score more than once against the Golden Knights was Brandon Saad with four goals. It’s one thing for your top line to struggle in scoring, but when all but two players are struggling to get any offensive production, that’s a recipe for disaster.

Defensive miscues: This one feels strange, as the Avalanche had one of the best defensive corps throughout the season. Norris Trophy finalist Cale Makar was the star attraction, but they got positive production from the likes of Devon Toews, Samuel Girard, and Ryan Graves. It had to be a disconcerting sight, however, for the defense to struggle as mightily as they did in this series. Makar and Toews weren’t bad, but they didn’t play like their usual selves (half of Makar’s total production in this series came in Game 1). The rest of the defense struggled, however, with Girard and Graves suffering most of all. The two didn’t record a single point in the final four games of the series, also recording a combined -14 (Girard, in particular, would record a -9). Both were directly responsible for the Avalanche going down in four straight, most noticeably when Graves was stripped of the puck and allowed Mark Stone to score on a breakaway in overtime in Game 5. Graves is now at risk of being exposed and selected by Seattle in the Expansion Draft, but Girard will have to improve and make up for this difficult series.

Nazem Kadri: Is it safe to just consider Kadri a dirty player and call it a day? It would be one thing if his high hit on Justin Faulk in the first round was an isolated incident, but he doesn’t get suspended eight games if that was the case. This is the third time in the last four years where Kadri has gotten himself suspended in the playoffs, with his team losing during his absence (Toronto traded him at a discount for a reason). Sure, Kadri hasn’t been the same player the last couple of years, but do you really not think that he would be an asset for a series like this? The Knights are very much a physical team, with players like Ryan Reaves, William Carrier, Keegan Kolesar, and Brayden McNabb being unafraid to throw their weight around. In a series like this, Kadri’s own brand of physicality would have forced the Knights to stay honest and potentially open things up for the Avalanche. Instead, Kadri indirectly cost his team a playoff series, and there have to be serious questions about his reliability at this point.

The crystal ball: It isn’t quite panic time for the Avalanche yet. They do have Landeskog and Philipp Grubauer about to hit unrestricted free agency, and Makar preparing for his first major extension, but Colorado has the cap space to make things work without having to shed serious salary. Even MacKinnon has gone on record to say that he’s willing to take a discount if it means helping the Avalanche build a contender, which should provide Colorado fans some relief. Still, Joe Sakic has stayed the course for a long time, and it may be only a matter of time until he’s forced to make a big move to push this team over the top. If Grubauer does walk in free agency to a team that overpays him, it may start with finding a new franchise netminder.

The real question, however, is what does this recent disappointment do for Jared Bednar’s job security? This is the third straight season that Bednar and the Avalanche have fallen in the second round and, this time, there’s no excuse for coming up short. The Avalanche are a team that have their Cup window open, so they need to find a way to produce results. Should they come up short next season in another year where the Avalanche are legitimate contenders, Colorado may have to look at shaking things up behind the bench and replace Bednar with a coach that would mesh with their current stars.

Postseason Postmortem: Carolina Hurricanes

Credit: NHL.com

The coroner is in. Let us examine the aftermath of the Carolina Hurricanes.

The skinny: It wasn’t supposed to end like this for the Hurricanes. A roster loaded with young talent and the revivals of several players was set to accomplish great things. The defense continued to be one of the deepest in the entire NHL. An amazing rookie campaign from Alex Nedeljkovic turned goaltending from a weakness to a strength practically overnight. Weathering an early challenge from the Nashville Predators should have been a precursor for playoff success. However, the defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning showed the young team how difficult of a grind the playoffs truly are.

It was another season of learning for the Hurricanes, who always appear to be on the right track but come up just short in the postseason. Two years ago, the Bruins put an end to a magical run to the Conference Finals. The Bruins would do the same the following year, dominating their younger rivals in the first round. This year, it was the Lightning’s turn to humble the Central Division winner. Where did it go wrong for the Hurricanes this time? Let’s present the evidence…

Injuries: The second line of the Hurricanes was ravaged by injuries during this series, as Nino Niederreiter and Vincent Trocheck all missed games. Warren Foegele was also injured in Game 3 and missed Game 5 after gutting out Game 4. The three forwards combined for 47 goals and 97 points during the regular season, as well as four goals during these playoffs. Their contributions were sorely missed, as the Hurricanes struggled to get anything going consistently on offense against an all-world goaltender in Andrei Vasilevskiy. While it’s unclear if the trio would have reversed Carolina’s fortunes, they would have likely made the series closer than it was.

Penalty kill: Similar to their victory over the Florida Panthers, the Lightning were able to capitalize on mistakes that put the Hurricanes in the penalty box. Out of 16 Carolina penalties, they were only able to succeed at killing nine of them. The power play was responsible for half of Tampa Bay’s goals in this series. Nikita Kucherov, in particular, was dominant with the man advantage, scoring six of his seven points in the series on the power play. A team with elite offensive talent and gameplanning is absolutely deadly if given the opportunity, and the Hurricanes gave away far too many to find success.

Game 4: This was the moment the Hurricanes’ season ended. With a chance to steal two games in Tampa Bay and go back to Raleigh with an even series, the Hurricanes went in firing on all cylinders. In a span of eight minutes in the second period, the Hurricanes outscored the Lightning 4-1 and seemed like they were heading back into the series. Unfortunately, the Lightning broke through and scored three times in five minutes to close out the period, including two power-play tallies. Facing a 5-4 deficit in such a fashion, the Hurricanes looked gassed in the third and let go of a second Nikita Kucherov goal that would effectively push the game out of reach. A great opportunity for the Hurricanes was effectively squandered, and it spelled the end for them in this series.

The crystal ball: The Hurricanes still have a good core intact, and they enter the offseason with the fifth-most cap space in the league. Even after they resign key restricted free agents like Nedeljkovic and Andrei Svechnikov, that will still leave the Hurricanes with plenty of money to play around with. They can add to that if the Seattle Kraken select Brady Skjei in the expansion draft, which wouldn’t be too bad of a loss for the Hurricanes, given their depth on defense. They also cleared another question by extending Jack Adams Award-winning coach Rod Brind’Amour, ensuring that most of Carolina’s key contributors this season are still here.

The real question is going to be regarding unrestricted free agent Dougie Hamilton. His offensive contributions among defensemen are unmatched, and he will likely command a deal very similar to the one Alex Pietrangelo signed just this past offseason. However, it’s unlikely that contract will come from the Hurricanes, who have given Hamilton permission to speak to other teams to open up sign-and-trade possibilities. The idea of it is good on the Hurricanes: it allows them to let their big-ticket free agent leave on their terms instead of leaving for nothing. Defensive-needy teams like Winnipeg, Chicago, and Philadelphia would be wise to at least get some feelers out and see what it would take to bring Hamilton over to their teams.

Postseason Postmortem: Winnipeg Jets

Credit: Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

The coroner is in. Let us sift through the unsalvageable wreck of the Winnipeg Jets.

The skinny: In the North Division second round matchup that nobody saw coming, the Jets were soundly swept out of the playoffs by the Montreal Canadiens. There really isn’t much else to say other than that about this series, as it played out in dominating fashion with the Jets unable to do anything.

It was a strange sight to see a team that had played so well against the two top point-scorers in the entire NHL suddenly fall apart against a team they were expected to handle. Instead, the Canadiens were a riddle that Paul Maurice and company were unable to crack, as the Canadiens advanced to the semifinals. So what grounded the Jets this time around? It’s pretty simple to figure out…

Mark Scheifele: It was a bad hit that didn’t need to happen. With a minute remaining in Game 1 and Montreal’s Jake Evans barreling down the ice for an empty-net goal, Scheifele laid out Evans with a massive hit as he put the puck in the net. While the dirtiness of the hit was debated among fans, the Department of Player Safety ultimately punished Scheifele with a five-game suspension. It was a massive blow to the Jets, as Scheifele led the team with 63 points in the regular season and was a key contributor in Winnipeg’s first-round victory over Edmonton. What happened afterwards…

Offensive struggles: …was a complete disaster. The Jets struggled without their top point-producer, and the new line combinations were never able to build any chemistry. The Jets managed to land three goals on Carey Price and the Canadiens’ defense in Game 1; they scored the same number of goals in the last three games. Two of the Jets’ last three goals came from defenseman Logan Stanley, who had scored only once in 37 regular-season games. Leading goal-scorer Kyle Connor only landed one against the Canadiens. Big trade acquisition and playoff bubble star Pierre-Luc Dubois notched only one point. Nikolaj Ehlers and captain Blake Wheeler were held off the scoresheet entirely. Carey Price and the Canadiens stifled the Jets at nearly every turn, taking advantage of a Winnipeg squad that was thrown completely out of sync.

Defensive issues: In hindsight, it was never a matter of if the Jets’ blueline would let them down, but when. The answer was in this series, as the Canadiens repeatedly exploited the Jets where they were weakest. Tyler Toffoli, Nick Suzuki, and Artturi Lehkonen led the charge for the Habs, posting two goals apiece and combining for twelve points. The only two Jets defensemen that posted a plus +/- rating were Stanley and Jordie Benn; all other defensemen combined for a -12. It proved that the Jets need more on the back end and Connor Hellebuyck, as talented as he may be, can’t serve as the team’s only reliable line of defense.

The crystal ball: It’s become clear that the Jets have been caught relying on Hellebuyck to bail them out for far too long, and it’s now also clear that such a strategy fails at building a contender and, even if it works, the success is unsustainable. The team still hasn’t recovered since from the mass exodus of 2019, when Dustin Byfuglien, Jacob Trouba, and Tyler Myers all left in varying fashions. They still had Josh Morrissey and landed Neal Pionk in the Trouba trade, but two reliable defensemen out of six is not going to work in the NHL. If Paul Maurice and Kevin Cheveldayoff want to stick around, landing another impact defenseman has to be THE top priority this offseason.

Stanley had an overall solid rookie season, and the likes of Ville Heinola and Dylan Samberg are rising through the farm system, so it’s not as if the Jets have to throw all caution in the wind on this. The 17th overall pick the Jets have in this year’s draft could also be used to add another quality defensive prospect. With $20 million in cap space for next season, they could also afford to look into free agency or the trade market. Impact free agents like Dougie Hamilton, Adam Larsson, and David Savard would all make sense for the Jets. For trades, look for the Jets to be connected to the likes of Seth Jones, Matt Dumba, and Rasmus Ristolainen. Regardless of what approach the Jets take, landing at least one quality defenseman to join their ranks is a must if they hope to take the next step.

Postseason Postmortem: Toronto Maple Leafs

Credit: John E. Sokolowski/USA Today Sports

The coroner has returned. And who else would be in the office than an all-too-familiar face?

The skinny: It happened again. All of Toronto sensed it was coming after they failed to close the series against Montreal out in Game 5, but it didn’t make the seemingly inevitable outcome any easier to swallow. As if reprising a common theme, the Canadiens roared back from a 3-1 series deficit to eliminate the heavily-favored Maple Leafs.

Toronto fans can be forgiven for feeling like this franchise has been cursed, as if the hockey gods are still punishing them for the miserly reign of Harold Ballard decades ago. This was the year, of all years, that things were supposed to be different. The Leafs had run through the North Division like a hot knife through butter, were finally decent on the back end and in net, and had a devastating powerplay led by their big four forwards. How did it all end up in yet another first-round exit? There’s a few reasons to point to…

Matthews and Marner: Auston Matthews won the Rocket Richard Trophy this season for scoring the most goals during the regular season, playing a major role in Toronto’s overall success. His linemate Mitch Marner finished fourth in the entire NHL in total points. Unfortunately, the big duo struggled to get anything going this series, combining to score only one goal in all seven games. Their struggles were only compounded by the injury to John Tavares in Game 1, leaving an inconsistency for Toronto to produce anything offensively. William Nylander and even Jason Spezza tried to pick up the slack with eight goals between them, but it was far from enough.

Failure to close: The Leafs had three straight opportunities to get that fourth win this series, and failed every single time. They didn’t hold a lead at any point in the final three games and, while they did manage to push Games 5 and 6 to overtime, they lost both. The worst part about all of this is that this has become a habitual instance for the Leafs. It’s the second time in the last four years the Leafs have blown a series lead (3-2 against Boston in 2019). They have gone 0-7 in series-clinching games in that span. A nice segue for the final reason…

Reputation: This may be a cop-out to some people, but can anyone deny the possibility of the Leafs cracking under the pressure yet again? It seems the team is caught in a vicious cycle: they’re considered one of the top teams in the league at the start of the season, play relatively well during the regular season, and then collapse at key moments in the postseason. This is the fifth straight year the Leafs have made the playoffs, and the fifth straight year they’ve fallen in the first round (if you count last year’s qualifying round, at least). Toronto hasn’t even made it beyond the first round since 2004. It’s one of the most disastrous playoff performances from any team in any sport, and the label of ‘playoff underachievers’ only received yet another underline this postseason.

The crystal ball: With the best opportunity for the Leafs to advance in the postseason squandered, it’s time to ask very serious questions about this core. It feels like the Sheldon Keefe-Kyle Dubas-Brendan Shanahan regime will receive at least one more try to make things right, but results have to be shown at some point. All three came into their respective positions of coach, general manager, and team president with promise and an approach that appeared to promise success in the short and long term. A third year of little to no change, however, could lead to a further sense of desperation and send at least one, and likely multiple, of the three out the door.

As far as changes to the roster go, that’s going to be a little tricky to figure out. Toronto’s rentals like Nick Foligno and David Rittich will likely find work elsewhere, and unrestricted free agents Zach Hyman and Frederik Andersen might not be asked back due to Toronto’s cap crunch. Their cap situation might get a little better if Seattle selects Alexander Kerfoot in the Expansion Draft and removing his $3.5 million cap hit from the books, but that’s still only temporary relief. The Leafs will also be tied to a good chunk of the trade targets this offseason, with some reports already connecting them to San Jose’s Evander Kane for grit and scoring depth. The only problem is that Toronto only has three picks each in this and next year’s drafts, so any trade will ensure Toronto has to deplete its farm system to some degree. Changes are coming, but will they lead to more problems than the Leafs already have?

Postseason Postmortem: Minnesota Wild

Image Credit: NHL.com

The coroner had a lunch break, but he’s back in. Let us dive into the defanging of the Minnesota Wild.

The skinny: So close, and yet so far away. If you were to describe the Minnesota Wild’s recent history in a single sentence, that’s the one that fits the best. A decade after the major signings of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, the Wild have been stuck in a no man’s land between fringe playoff contender and barely missing the postseason. But this year was meant to be different. With likely Calder Trophy winner Kirill Kaprizov being as exactly as advertised in his first season from Russia, young players like Joel Eriksson Ek and Jordan Greenway breaking out, and a deep defensive corps, this was the season for the Wild to finally break through.

Unfortunately, their first taste of success put them on a collision course with the Vegas Golden Knights, a team that was so close to winning the division and President’s Trophy. While the Wild deserved to be considered a sexy upset pick (and they came very close to pulling it off), their lack of playoff experience came back to haunt them in the end, coming up just short in Game 7. So what led to the final downfall of the Wild? Let’s take a look…

Zach Parise: The issue here isn’t necessarily Parise, who played very well in this series and tied for the team lead with two goals and three points; the issue is coach Dean Evason’s usage of Parise. Parise was a healthy scratch for the first three games of the series, only seeing action when Marcus Johansson suffered a broken arm in Game 3. When Parise did enter the lineup, he had a slight return to form for the rest of the series. It leads to further uncertainty about where Parise stands with the Wild. While it’s likely his contract will keep him in Minnesota for the foreseeable future, a season where Parise was up and down the lineup might lead him to be a little frustrated.

Inconsistent offense: It wasn’t just Parise’s lack of usage that weakened the Wild offense; their top stars couldn’t keep any momentum throughout the series. Kaprizov was held to just one assist in the first four games of the series, scoring his only two goals in Games 5 and 7. Kevin Fiala was near nonexistent, scoring his only two points in Game 6 (he also finished with a -6 for the series). Mats Zuccarello and Marcus Foligno were held without a goal, as were three of their top four defensemen. Eriksson Ek (two goals and three points), Greenway (one goal and three points), and Ryan Hartman (two goals) did their best, but Minnesota’s top stars failed to show up when it mattered most.

Injuries: It wasn’t just Johansson that was injured in this series. Third-pairing defenseman Carson Soucy also went out with an injury, but it wasn’t until Game 7 that the injury bug really bit Minnesota hard. Early in the game, Jonas Brodin took a hit from Vegas forward Nic Roy that took him out of the game. Ryan Suter and Eriksson Ek also had nasty collisions with the goal posts and, while both players did come back into the game, neither seemed particularly effective for the rest of the game. It’s not necessarily a valid excuse, but there’s no denying how important a clean bill of health is for the postseason.

The crystal ball: This season may have ended in bitter disappointment, but the Wild are on the verge of something they haven’t had for a while: legitimacy. With Kaprizov looking like a franchise star, a young core emerging, and prospects like Matt Boldy and Calen Addison on the way, the Wild look to be in great shape for years to come. While Kaprizov, Eriksson Ek, and Fiala will all be in line for hefty extensions, the Wild should also have the cap space to add at least one more major piece to help push them over the top (perhaps a top-line center to pair with Kaprizov and Zuccarello).

The big question for the Wild, however, will be the Expansion Draft. They are the one team where it’s an uncertainty of what protection format they will choose: do they protect Matt Dumba and go the eight skaters route, or do they protect the likes of Fiala and Hartman with the traditional 7-3-1 scheme? Regardless of their choice, the Wild might have to part with a prospect or draft pick in order to keep the player(s) they would prefer not to lose. The good news is they have a relatively deep farm system and a couple extra draft picks this year from the Jason Zucker trade to Pittsburgh, so they should be alright. Well, so long as Wild fans are fine with losing Hartman or Soucy to keep Dumba or Fiala.

Postseason Postmortem: Nashville Predators

Credit: Andrew Nelles/The Tennessean

The coroner is in. Let us discuss the demise of the reanimated Nashville Predators.

The skinny: Give the Predators some credit; they should not have even made it this far. In mid-March, the Predators were one of the most troubled teams in the league, failing to get production from their top stars while the special teams continued to be among the league’s worst units. It felt like the trade deadline and offseason would provide wholesale changes and see the definitive end to this era of Predators hockey. But then, the Predators rebounded, rampaging through their division in the weeks prior to the deadline and working their way to securing the fourth seed.

Unfortunately, that effort put them in the path of a Hurricanes team who had solved its goaltending issue and was loaded with depth. It was a spirited effort from a Predators squad that looked outmatched on paper, with all of the final four games needing overtime to decide a winner. It wasn’t enough, though, as the Hurricanes eventually broke through. So what finally finished the Predators off? Let’s take a look…

Power play: Tell me where this sounds familiar: the Predators were let down by their power play. Feels like a common theme over the last three years, and it proved true once again. Despite having seven power play opportunities in Game 2, Nashville failed to capitalize on all of them. For context, Carolina held a 1-0 lead until the final minute of the game. It was the most egregious example of the Predators’ power play providing momentum in the wrong direction. It wouldn’t get much better for the Predators with the man advantage, operating at an 11.5% clip (only Montreal has a worse power play percentage). Part of playoff success comes from taking advantage of the opposing team’s mistakes, which is something the Predators can’t seem to do consistently.

Uneven production: It wasn’t that the Predators failed to get production from their stars; it’s just that they weren’t able to stay consistent. Ryan Johansen came on late in the series with three goals in the last four games, Mikael Granlund paced the team with five points, and center Erik Haula and defensemen Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis each picked up four points. Then we get the negatives. Whereas Johansen lit up the Hurricanes in the final four games, Filip Forsberg and Matt Duchene ran cold with only one point between them in the final three games. Viktor Arvidsson, a usual source of offensive production, missed the final four games with injury. Power play goal leader Eeli Tolvanen was held off the scoresheet in the four games he played. Calle Jarnkrok managed only one assist. It was simply a case of the negative outweighing the positives with Nashville.

Coaching: The John Hynes hire to replace Peter Laviolette raised more than a few eyebrows, and it’s fair to wonder if this series did anything to quell the unrest. Sure, give Hynes and his squad credit for pulling out two gutsy double-overtime victories in Games 3 and 4, but they deserve some heat for not matching up with the Hurricanes adjusting to overcome the newfound adversity. In Games 5 and 6, the Predators were holding the lead late, but let the Hurricanes back in to give them life. It’s momentum that the Hurricanes pounced on in overtime, eventually sending the Predators home. It falls on Hynes to at least some degree, as he couldn’t put it all together as Carolina attacked with near-reckless abandon.

The crystal ball: It’s clear from this series and the four years since their Cup Final appearance that the contention window has closed on the Predators. Like any team having to adjust from a closed window, it leaves serious questions for the Predators to answer? Is the Hynes-David Poile regime viable in the long term? How do the Predators approach soon-expiring deals like Forsberg, Jarnkrok, and Mattias Ekholm? What will Juuse Saros’s extension look like? Will a big contract be moved to allow the Predators to pivot towards the future? It’s an offseason that is crucial towards determining where this team for at least the next few years.

The biggest stage for the Predators this offseason will unquestionably be the Expansion Draft? Despite Dante Fabbro’s slower-than-expected development, the emergence of Alexandre Carrier likely pushes the Predators to protect eight skaters instead of the more common seven forwards and three defensemen. If there is a goal for the Predators here, it would be convincing Seattle to take either one of Duchene or Johansen’s contracts off their books. It would undoubtedly take a package of prospects and picks for Seattle to even remotely consider the idea, but it would give the Kraken a legitimate top-line center to start their team with and the Predators much-needed cap flexibility in the flat cap era. They could use those cap savings to try and swing a deal for Ryan Nugent-Hopkins or Mike Hoffman, both of whom could help the Predators out on the power play, but would the fans really be keen on taking a swing at another big-ticket free agent so soon after Duchene?

Postseason Postmortem: Pittsburgh Penguins

Credit: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The coroner is in. Wheel in the first champion to fall: the Pittsburgh Penguins.

The skinny: In hindsight, we should have all known this was a trap series. Yes, the Penguins were rolling after an inconsistent first month and seemed to find another gear when Jeff Carter returned to his old form after Pittsburgh acquiring him from Los Angeles. Then again, the Islanders were a defensively-responsible team with great goaltending and arguably the best coach in the NHL in Barry Trotz; a team basically tailor-made for the postseason.

While it was nowhere near as embarrassing as their 2019 sweep at the hands of the Islanders, the Penguins still did little as their offense was repeatedly stifled by the Islanders. They got some good bounces in their two victories, but it did little to turn the momentum in their favor. So what caused the first champion to fall so early? Let’s examine the causes for a bit…

Goaltending: The obvious reason and, in the eyes of many Pittsburgh fans, the sole reason the Penguins lost this series. While Tristan Jarry had his moments, his .888 save percentage ranks third-last among goaltenders who started at least three games this postseason. Three games, in particular, stand out to highlight how rough Jarry’s playoffs were. Game 1, Jarry let go of all four Islander goals from the glove side, indicating a massive hole for the Islanders to exploit. Game 5, Jarry single-handedly cost the Penguins the game with a risky clearing attempt that landed on the stick of Josh Bailey, who proceeded to end the game early in double overtime. Jarry would respond to that miscue by letting go of five goals on 19 shots in Game 6. Jarry was getting his first extended postseason look, and the results reflected very poorly on him.

First-line struggles: While Jarry deserves some blame, it’s hard not to look at Sidney Crosby’s performance and say he should carry some blame for the Penguins’ early exit. This was arguably Crosby’s weakest playoff series to date, mustering only one goal and one assist against the Islanders, as well as getting burned badly on a few Islanders goals. His linemates didn’t perform much better. Jake Guentzel managed the same offensive totals as Crosby while finishing with a -6. Bryan Rust did somewhat better by scoring twice, but it wasn’t enough. In a series where the stars had to perform, the Penguins fell silent in that regard.

The Islanders’ second line: Compare the struggles of the Penguins’ first line to the success of the Islanders’ second line. While no member of the Penguins’ first line managed more than three points, all three of Anthony Beauvillier, Brock Nelson, and Josh Bailey scored three goals apiece and picked up at least six points. Keep in mind that the Islanders are typically an inconsistent offensive team, with their 2.71 goals per game mark finishing 21st in the league during the regular season. In this series, however, the Penguins saw themselves repeatedly victimized by the same line. It’s a common thread in these series where the winner sees their offensive stars outperform the losing side, and that’s exactly what happened here.

The crystal ball: If you were to look at Penguins social media after their third straight early elimination, you would be hearing cries for Tristan Jarry to be traded. Granted, the panic regarding Pittsburgh’s goaltending situation is justified, given they haven’t had consistently strong goaltending since the duo of Matt Murray and Marc-Andre Fleury were patrolling the net. However, moving Jarry sounds like a panic move, and would be an open sign that the Penguins will overpay a goalie in free agency or on the trade market. There’s no need to change the course of this team just yet, especially with the core of Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang making a full rebuild nearly impossible to pull off. An Expansion Draft trade to take a complementary piece wouldn’t be a bad idea (Jason Zucker and Marcus Pettersson immediately come to mind), but that should be as far as Pittsburgh’s salary cap casualties should go.

There is one man’s future I’m not entirely certain on, though: coach Mike Sullivan. Jim Rutherford bowed out mid-season from Pittsburgh’s GM role, and the new regime of Ron Hextall and Brian Burke might be looking at options to find their own man at the helm. Sullivan did win two Cups with the Penguins, but his lack of adjustments in recent years has likely reduced the goodwill to near-insignificance. It wouldn’t be unprecedented for the Penguins to move on from a coach after a new regime took over, as it happened in 2013 with Dan Bylsma following Ray Shero out of Pittsburgh. It would be a surprise firing, but one that wouldn’t be wholly unexpected. As far as who would replace him, might I suggest former Penguins assistant and former Arizona Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet, who might be intrigued by Hextall’s vision?